Sympathy and Empathy: The Pit

I’ve always held both sympathy and empathy in high regard, viewing them as demonstrations of kindness, friendship and vehicles of human connection.

Lately though, I find myself considering the differences between them.

The best description I’ve found comes from the wonderful Brene Brown, via a simple but effective analogy:

If someone is stuck in the bottom of a pit, she says, then sympathy is someone standing at the top pitying you from above. Maybe they’re shouting advice…”when I was in the pit, I did…”. Maybe they’re trying to make you feel better… “at least it isn’t raining too!”

Empathy, she says, is about climbing into the pit with them. It’s about being with them in that pit and really listening to what they have to say.

Upon reflection, I think my approach is more sympathy than empathy-based.

And I don’t think it’s entirely helpful. Or kind.

All too often, I find myself only listening to the first part of what someone says. Then I jump in with an ‘at least’ or ‘well when I…’. Yes, I’m trying to make things better, but only if I can do it my way – with my band aid for someone else’s problem. I’m not in the pit – I’m at the top, shouting down instructions and well-wishes, telling them it’s not that bad.

Maybe empathy and sympathy aren’t as similar, or as useful, as I thought…

Because here’s the cold, hard truth as I see it now. In the kind of situations where empathy or sympathy is required, often people aren’t looking to someone else to fix their problems – they just want someone to listen.

The hard bit comes because it’s much easier to dish out sympathy, high as you are above this person in their pit. To get into the pit with them, and listen without trying to find a solution, to accept feelings of vulnerability that might result from this, isn’t easy – but this is exactly what people need.

So I’m going to work on getting in the pit more, guided by the knowledge that this is kindness; this is connection; this is empathy.

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